The Art of Complimenting and Criticizing

 

Takeaway

  • Complimenting other people increases self-esteem and builds trust
  • Being overly critical can make you feel good temporarily, but it can backfire in the long run
  • When providing negative feedback it is important to be genuine, direct and socially intelligent

My friend Paula is the gregarious and friendly type. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to smile at strangers or to even start a conversation with a homeless person. It’s in her nature to look for positive things in others and to compliment them. The problem with Paula, however, is that she isn’t very good at critiquing others. She freezes up when she has to give negative feedback, so, even if she actually doesn’t like someone, she can’t bring herself to avoid his or her company. In fact, she will continue to say positive things to people she doesn’t like, even if she doesn’t really mean it. As a result, Paula has gained the reputation of being friendly, but perhaps a little inauthentic or superficial. People like to hang out with her, but they find it difficult to know the “real Paula.”

My friend Simon, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He takes pride in being honest, but he is often perceived as rude or blunt. He rarely notices or says positive things about others; rather, his nature is to hone into others’ faults, and he is in fact very good at providing critical but authentic feedback. Many people think that Simon is a misanthrope, but that is not the case. He does like many people, but you wouldn’t know that until you got to know him really well. 

Which of the two is more likely to form deep and meaningful friendships? Most people would say Paula, but that’s not necessarily the case. To understand why, consider what we know from findings in psychology.

Those who are good at complimenting others gain many advantages. Most obviously, when you become good at complimenting others, you enhance the chances of being liked by them. For example, if you are liked, you will be forgiven for committing a mistake more easily and quickly, and you are also more likely to be chosen as the recipient of others' favors.

More importantly, by becoming good at complimenting others, you enhance your own well-being and that of the people around you. When you compliment others, you view yourself as a generous and big-hearted person, thus increasing your own self-esteem.

In contrast, those who criticize more than they compliment often come to see themselves as selfish and insecure. This causal link between criticizing others and lower self-esteem may not be obvious. In fact, being critical can temporarily boost your self-esteem and make you feel good. But over time, if you start depending on this strategy to boost your self-esteem, it starts backfiring for two reasons. 

First, you invite reciprocal negativity from others. That is, if you routinely criticize others, you will make them feel negative, and this, in turn, will make them criticize you. And by being the type of person who routinely criticizes others, you invite the company of people who are like you — critical and unforgiving — and turn away those who are generous and positive.

In short, you stand to gain many advantages and avoid many disadvantages by becoming better at the art of complimenting others. All of these advantages are more likely to accrue if your compliments are authentic and not fake. In particular, it is unlikely that you will view yourself as a generous and big-hearted person if you compliment others only for the sake of receiving favors from them; indeed, it is even possible that you view yourself even more negatively in such situations because you realize, at some level, that your intentions weren’t noble.

Given all this, two important questions arise: 1) How does one become better at the art of complimenting, and 2) when and how should one provide negative or critical feedback to others?

Becoming better at complimenting others depends on two factors: the motivation to learn this skill and the ability to focus on other people and their needs and desires, rather than on oneself. Few people are naturally other-focused; most of us are generally self-focused.

A good way to become other-focused is to force yourself to get into the habit of finding something to compliment about whoever is around you. For example, although you may not have liked either the content or the style of a presentation, you can still find something about it that you genuinely liked. Perhaps you liked how the presenter answered questions. Or perhaps there were a couple of good jokes in the presentation. Or perhaps the presenter was well dressed. It doesn’t matter whether these aspects are central to the presentation; what matters more is that you are genuine in your praise. Making it a habit to scan your emotional terrain to find something genuinely praiseworthy about others goes a long way in making you better at the art of complimenting. 

When you offer genuine praise to others, you don’t just make them feel good, but you also gain their trust. By mastering the art of complimenting, you trigger in others the tendency to expose their real selves, which promotes reciprocity from your end, leading to authentic, deep, and far more interesting conversations.

This brings us to the second question: how does one become better at the art of criticizing or critiquing others?

Even if it is done with good intentions, negative feedback often generates lose-lose situations. But while criticism can sometimes be hard to take, if given properly, it can help put less focus on emotional negativity and more on the potential for improvement.

There are three important elements to consider when providing negative feedback. First, the criticism must be genuine rather than self-serving — there cannot be a hidden agenda. The receiver of feedback then feels more confident that the criticism is being given to them with the sole purpose of helping them improve their performance. A telltale sign of genuinely un-self-centered feedback is that the feedback provider isn’t angry or anxious when giving the feedback. 

Second, people who are good at providing negative feedback are also high in self-esteem and self-worth. This is an important quality because the receiver of constructive criticism may reflexively lash back against negative comments, and the feedback-giver needs to have the mental and emotional strength to keep things civil.

Finally, people who are good at providing negative feedback are socially intelligent and are able to choose the right moments to share criticism. Our natural tendency is to be defensive and to find arguments for why the feedback does not have merit. So, those who are good at providing negative feedback do so only when they are confident that the receiver is mentally capable of handling it. 

As some of my own findings show, people are better at receiving negative feedback when they are in a good mood. Those who are good at the art of criticizing know this instinctively, and they wait for moments in which the recipient is feeling good before providing them with the negative feedback. As such, good criticizers don’t follow a pre-set script when giving negative feedback. It is important to know when to throw in a compliment as an emotional buffer that helps the receiver absorb the criticism. 

A feedback-provider’s high level of social intelligence is also reflected in the language that they use. They realize that certain words and terms (e.g., the word “you”) come off as incendiary, and they are adept at avoiding them.

Associate Professor of Marketing Raj Raghunathan writes about the nature of happiness and the human condition on his blog, Sapient Nature, where the full version of this article originally appeared.

Disclaimer

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Raj Raghunathan

Associate Professor of Marketing, McCombs School of Business

Raj Raghunathan earned his Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. His work juxtaposes theories from psychology,...

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